The EU’s 'stolen goods'

18 March 2015

Written by: Saskia Ozinga

The EU’s 'stolen goods'

For 20 years, Fern has been working to influence and inform EU policies on tropical forests, and ensure that the voices of the millions of people whose lives depend on them are heard.

Recently, we have seen the emergence of a grave new threat: Tropical forests are now being destroyed not so much for their timber, but to make way for commercial agriculture — driven by the insatiable demand of the “global north” for products such as palm oil, beef and soy. The consequences, both for the fight against climate change and for forest-dependent communities, are catastrophic.

The extent to which the European Union is at the heart of the trade in agricultural products that originate from deforested land has been well documented. But our new report, “Stolen Goods: the EU’s Complicity in Illegal Tropical Deforestation,” reveals for the first time just how much of this deforestation is illegal.

We found that between 2000 and 2012, an average of one football pitch of forest was illegally cleared every two minutes to supply the EU with the millions of tons of goods that flow into the continent every year, and are part of the tapestry of our everyday lives: beef, leather, cocoa, palm oil, and soy, animal feed, leather and biofuels.

We also found that almost a quarter of the world trade in agricultural goods produced on illegally deforested land is destined for the EU. In 2012 alone, the EU imported 6 billion euros ($6.35 billion) worth of goods from illegally deforested land. This illegality takes many forms — from converting forests to land for commercial agriculture without the right to do so, to using illegally obtained permits or clearing more land than permitted.

Identifying the problem is one thing. Coming up with practical solutions is another.

We believe — and the evidence shows — that the best way to protect tropical forests is for the people who live in them to have a say in how they’re run. Quite simply, communities that rely on resources have a greater stake in conserving them.

Fortunately, the EU already has a template for trying to make this happen.

In 2003, it instigated the Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade action plan, which uses innovative trade agreements with timber-producing countries called Voluntary Partnership Agreements to stop illegally harvested timber from entering the EU, while strengthening community rights to forest land. VPAs are legally binding trade agreements establishing rules drawn up — at the EU’s behest — with community and civil society groups in the producer countries.

An aerial view of agricultural and forest landscapes in Brazil. Tropical forests are being destroyed not so much for their timber, but to make way for commercial agriculture. Photos by: Kate Evans/CIFOR, Flickr/cc.

But these agreements do not cover timber cut as a byproduct of land cleared for agricultural commodities. So a critical first step would be ensuring that they do. Meanwhile, we also need a broader EU action plan on deforestation that extends the FLEGT rules on land rights to cover agricultural commodities.

It could start with key commodities such as palm oil and beef, and stipulate that only commodities grown on land legally converted from forests would be eligible for import to the EU.

Another way forward is to tackle the paradox that sees the same development agencies that receive aid to save forests, direct funds to projects that are destroying them.

Much of the European overseas development aid on forests is being channeled through development finance institutions — organizations that provide loans for private sector investment in the developing world. But at the same time as they have been distributing money to save tropical forests, DFIs have also been financing agricultural projects involved in land grabs and forest destruction.

To stop this, European DFIs’ land-based investments must be monitored against their published commitments, and forced to meet the standards set out in the U.N.’s Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure.

To know more about practical steps the EU can take to move from being deeply complicit in illegal deforestation to leading the fight against it, visit

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